It started with a vacant lot. But where others saw a scrubby, rectangular piece of land strewn with rocks and broken glass, the refugees living in the adjacent apartments saw a soccer field and a gathering place and spot to grow vegetables. On Monday, the city Parks and Recreation Department, in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, will break ground on a new park on East 13th Avenue.
Sara Davis, program manager for former Mayor John Hickenlooper's Mile High million tree-planting initiative, has been working on making the park a reality since 2008. That's when she got a call from a staff member at Mercy Housing, which operates the affordable housing for many of the refugees, who are from such diverse countries as Somalia, Burma and Afghanistan. Could the city plant some more trees in the vacant lot?, the staffer wanted to know.
Davis went out to investigate. There was a small community garden in one corner of the lot, set up by the refugees and watered with a hose they dragged through the alley. Under shade from a clump of cottonwood trees was a cluster of abandoned couches that served as a meeting spot for neighbors. Kids played soccer in the gravel. "I said, 'I think we need more than trees. This should be a park,'" she says now.
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But the city didn't have any money for a new park. What they did have was a burgeoning relationship with the Colorado office of the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group that protects land for parks and gardens. The Trust helped organize community meetings (which were very well attended!) and secure grant funding.
Monday at 10:30 a.m., they'll help break ground on the park -- which will eventually feature a much bigger garden, two playgrounds, an artificial turf soccer field, two basketball hoops, picnic tables and finally, more shade trees. Organizers hope it's used by everyone in the neighborhood, including folks living in nearby low-income housing as well as transitional housing run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
"Within a couple square blocks, there are a lot of people who need to have something positive in their lives to make them feel like valued members of a much larger community," Davis says. "This park is a great way to start instilling that feeling for them."
More from our News archives: "Red Fields to Green Fields: Wall St. banker has grand plan to turn abandoned malls into parks."